Growing up a Guerilla Child

Posted by Fiona McAlpine on

At the tender age of 22, it is safe to say that Khamseng Bohagi has more adventure under her belt than even the most bewhiskered superhero. As the daughter of two leaders of the underground liberation movement in Assam, Northeast India, Khamseng spent her childhood scrambling across borders with secret identities - on the run before she knew how to walk.

As our key fixer for The Fabric Social, Khamseng has worked with us in Assam as a translator, intern, confidant, and general extinguisher of fires. It is Khamseng who helped us quality check our first fabric order on hands and scuffed knees, coordinated our flood appeal and fundraising tour, and helped us get to know the silk weaving village of Lakwa more intimately.

Assam is not very well known to the outside world, except for its delicious tea, which was planted by the British East India Company in the early 19th century. The Brits took over from the Ahom kings who had ruled for 600 years, and the tea industry has been booming off of the back of generations of toilsome labour ever since.

After India’s independence, liberation movements across the Northeast region blossomed from the soil of exploitation, and decades of armed insurgency followed.

Khamseng’s mum Kaberi was literally being chased by the army when her water broke. Kaberi is a bonafide bad ass, and had a bounty on her head for being the philosophical torchbearer of the underground movement.

When Kaberi went into labour, they were living in a liberation movement camp - a ramshackle set of underground bunkers nicknamed No Man’s Land, hidden from the Indian army. Beyond the constant threat of an armed attack, starvation and sanitation were huge problems. Although they had shelter, safety and camaraderie in spades, they didn’t have the medical facilities to look after a newborn. Khamseng was bundled up and taken to the army hospital by a decoy Naga woman, who pretended to be her mother.

Khamseng was 6 months old when she was smuggled into to Bhutan, to live under her first secret identity as a Bhutia kid. She was transferred to Bangladesh when she was six, and lived under the identity of a Christian girl from Tripura, but soon changed to a Muslim girl to fit in. She chose the Muslim name of Ananya and melded into the culture.

After years on the run, her family finally settled back in Assam together, and her mum was one of only two women who participated in the peace negotiations between the liberation movement and the Indian government. Life went somewhat back to normal, and Khamseng was able to finish her schooling and started getting involved in her mum’s community work - namely Srishti Handlooms and co-operative silk cultivation in rural communities who used to fall under the liberation movement umbrella.

This is where Khamseng and The Fabric Social found each other. Working with The Fabric Social has meant Khamseng has been able to channel her passions, and find a space where she can learn and develop.

“It was really magic to find The Fabric Social and be a translator. It has helped me realise I can help to change the world as one person. It's a common feeling to want to change the world but feel like you can't because there is too much to do and too many problems. The Fabric Social has helped me understand that one step at a time is actually a healthy approach when problems seem insurmountable.”

The freedoms that the liberation movement were fighting for have not been attained. Assam continues to be exploited by outside interests, workers rights continue to be ignored. Although the underground army has long since surrendered, it’s up to Khamseng’s generation to address these issues from new angles, and to build a new future for Assam:

“I feel that in Assam there is a big feeling of restlessness within our generation, we are curious and want to know more, but have no sources for finding out, because all of our history books and articles have been buried and tossed away, and the older generations won’t talk about it because that time was hard for them. We are trying to carry the baggage of our elder generations without knowing why we are carrying it or what it is.”

We like to think that the wounds of conflict are not irreparable, and that women’s peacebuilding is a powerful force. We also like to think that The Fabric Social is one tiny baby step in the right direction towards peace, as is Khamseng’s poetry - making amends with her past.

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